|SuperMemo is useless!||February 2000
(updated February 2005)
|SuperMemo is often seen as a program for cramming foreign language vocabulary without wider perspectives in fields requiring creativity, problems solving, artistry, etc. Quite a few people involved in selling or developing SuperMemo courseware and software do not belong to the circle of users (including SuperMemo World's own employees). This article looks for the reasons|
If you believe SuperMemo is useless (at least beyond learning vocabulary), you are not alone. Please have a look at the following e-mail. It was received at SuperMemo World on January 25, 2000 and seems quite representative. Many people share similar opinions about SuperMemo:
Do you share similar convictions?
SuperMemo World's opinion: "SuperMemo is useless" e-mail bolsters the Socratic maxim: All troubles come from ignorance. The usefulness of SuperMemo is so obvious that one might argue, we should not spent time contesting this e-mail. However, there are many people who would share the convictions of SuperMemo Critic and our mission is and must be to work on changing similar misconceptions!
This article is intended to point out errors in "SuperMemo is useless" and as such also demonstrate that the greatest barrier on the way towards the widespread use of SuperMemo is the difficulty in overcoming prejudicial convictions of which many are deeply entrenched in tradition of many cultures. If you disagree, please feel free to voice your opinions on SuperMemo Forum or in SuperMemopedia.
The official rejoinder below is divided into the following sections:
Common sense refutation
Let us first contest individual points of "SuperMemo is useless" e-mail using common sense examples. Later, using more strict reasoning, we will point out well-known concepts of science that falsify all four quoted points
The main thesis of this article:
Point 1 - Memorization is not needed
Is it true that we do not need memorization? With constant improvement in access to knowledge, we can obtain answers to important questions with ever increasing easiness
- If this were true, we could travel around the world without learning languages. After all, finding out words in a dictionary takes mere seconds
- If this were true, students of medicine would not need to cram details of human anatomy and physiology. Instead they would learn to use state-of-the-art expert systems with all answers built in. If you asked: What's up doc? You will hear: I have no idea but wait ... I will check it out on my computer
- If this were true, all exams such as SAT, GRE, TEOFL, FCE, GCSE, USMLE, etc. would be a great waste of human time and resources. Students should rather come to exams with their link to the web and figure out answers ad hoc. Or they would just read out relevant paragraphs from a textbook
- If this were true, nobody should poke fun at George Bush Jr. for his lack of knowledge of the heads of state of Chechnya, Taiwan or Pakistan. After all, he can find those names in seconds on his palmtop. If using external storage was permissible, nobody should blame George W. for mixing up Slovakia with Slovenia, or refer to Kosovars as Kosovarians, East Timorese as East Timorians, or Greeks as Grecians (NB: the word Grecians is considered correct too)
- If this were true, you could be a rocket scientist at NASA tomorrow! After all, rocket scientists follow well-know rules written in well-know manuals organized in a very well-know manner. If you need to plot the trajectory for Galileo to beam images of Europa back to Earth ... no problem ... take the Advanced Calculus textbook, figure it out, and send your billion dollar mission on course
- Last but not least: Two ideas do not come together to produce a great invention unless they sit in the same head. They either have to be called up at the same time or one has to come unexpectedly from the outside:
- Archimedes stepped into a bath and immediately associated the fact with all he knew about weight and buoyancy. Thousands of Greeks at his time failed to make the link. This was not solely because of their less lively minds. It was mostly because of their lack of understanding of hydrostatics
- Isaac Newton is said to have been hit by an apple that produced an immediate use of his knowledge of physics and mathematics to enhance his three famous laws of motion published in Principia by the laws of gravity
- James Watt is rumored to have watched a kettle boil to combine this inspiration with his knowledge of engineering to improve upon a Newcomen's steam engine. This association changed the industry upside down in the course of the hundred years that followed
SuperMemo can help you be creative not only by combining various pieces of knowledge in your mind. It can help you generate new ideas while making repetitions! Genius associations do not come from the mere existence of two pieces of knowledge in your brain. Those two pieces of knowledge have to light up at the same time. Only this way can your brain make a connection. Strangely, a repetition related to genetically modified tomato can light up memories related to tomato juice, cucumbers, genetic disorders, take-home dinner, flu or even the silent Mars Polar Lander. If your collection combines knowledge pertaining to different subject domains, the stream of new ideas and unexpected associations coming to your mind may surprise you!
The advantage of keeping knowledge in your head as compared to keeping it in external sources can metaphorically be compared to the advantage of going from primary through secondary to university education as opposed to getting a week-long course on digging info from external sources. Nearly all parents seem to prefer to choose the former for their kids
Point 2 - Remembering 95% of knowledge still leaves 5% forgotten which is not worth the cost of repetitions
Is it true that SuperMemo makes us pay too much for knowledge?
- SuperMemo gives you a choice to determine how much you are ready for pay for knowledge and how much knowledge you want to keep in your mind. If 95% is too little, you can increase the forgetting index. If 95% cost you too much work, you can decrease the forgetting index. You can decrease it so much that you will hit the level of maximum speed of knowledge per time cost! If SuperMemo were dumb enough, it would even let you decrease it further so that your retention would drop down to the level you normally reach in learning without SuperMemo!
- The complaint on the loss of precious 5% of knowledge stands in contrast with Point 1 from which we might conclude that 5% is not a big deal if it can be accessed in 30 seconds from external sources
- It is enough to ask any user of SuperMemo who has passed TOEFL or GRE: Were hours of repetitions worth the resulting knowledge? All those who have previously invested weeks and months or even years into language courses will not hesitate to testify in favor
- One of the greatest benefits of SuperMemo in learning is that building new knowledge often requires a solid foundation. With a good foundation, new concepts easily slot in an make a harmonious entirety. Contradictions and discrepancies are easily located. The time invested in a good foundation will pay back manifold in the course of passing years
Point 3 - Success is based on posing right questions; not on knowing the answers
Is it true that SuperMemo requires cramming instead of reasoning?
- The question-vs-answer dilemma is not defined well-enough to be of philosophical challenge here! After all: why ask the question if the answer is known. If we knew how to proceed with cold fusion, why ask the question How?
- Memorizing the answer as opposed to understanding the ability to derive it cannot be rejected outright either. It is obvious that it is better to learn to multiply rather than memorize the product of all possible combination of numbers. Yet few students are encouraged to derive formulas for finding the solutions to quadratic equations each time they encounter such an equation. It is simpler to memorize the formula than to derive it in need. It is only a matter of balancing the cost and the benefit. The derivation may be useful to mathematicians as a testing ground. An ordinary engineer will rather recall the formula or even use a computer program
- The ability to ask right questions is also based on knowledge which has to be learned. A primary school student will usually not be able to ask right questions about the origins of the universe as the concept of the universe may be hard to grasp without understanding the earth, the Solar System, the galaxies, distances measured in light years, time measured in millions of lengths of human life and zillions of lengths of a lunch break
- Without relevant knowledge, you might never ask the question in the first place! If you have no knowledge about greenhouse gases and environmental degradation, why ask questions about the greenhouse effect?
Point 4a - Memory has an excellent ability to retain important information
Is it true that our brain is extremely effective in remembering knowledge that is important?
- If this were true you would not tremble before an exam and confusingly run through the notes to be sure that at the zero hour you won't suffer from a proverbial blackout. At the same time, you could easily recall details of a Schwarzenegger movie seen last evening (or even weeks before the exam). Clearly, Arnie beats the ups and downs of the Ottoman Empire. And if you think the Ottoman Empire had much greater an impact on humanity than the island shootout in Commando, you are still likely to remember the muscle and the machine gun far better than the timeline of the sultans
- If this were true you would never have problems with recalling the date of your mother-in-law's birthday -- a piece of data often critical to your marital harmony
- If this were true, you should instantly forget the Olympic champions in football in Atlanta 1996 or Munich 1972. After all this might be a classic case of unimportant knowledge. Yet few Africans would forget how Nigeria beat Argentina 4:3 in 1996. Similarly, few Poles would forget the most memorable moment in the history of Polish football: Olympic championship in Munich
The truth is that we excellently remember only things that are both easy to remember and repeated frequently enough. The brain does not have an internal measure of importance (other than limited volitional control or control via repeated exposure)! Your memory storage ruthlessly deletes your career-critical knowledge with same ease as it ravages the traces of last year's golf scores or contributing names listed at the end of a boring soap opera.
SuperMemo provides you with the ultimate pigeonhole for mission critical data. What is in -- stays in your memory. What is out -- is free to go
Point 4b - SuperMemo is useless! People have lived successfully for ages without SuperMemo
Is it true that Albert Einstein, Ivan Pavlov, Norbert Wiener, or Adam Smith were successful enough to never have benefited from spaced repetition in learning (i.e. SuperMemo)?
- By analogy one could claim: The Internet is useless! People have lived successful lives before the net. All that thanks to their remarkable skills of verbal communication!
- Einstein might have failed to step from special to general theory of relativity had he been armed with extra knowledge in physics or mathematics that would make his brain stick to the beaten tract. Equally well, this additional knowledge might have helped him arrive at grand unified theory. All pieces of knowledge in our mind determine its ultimate response to questions posed. However, the stronger your mindware, the greater the probability of generating educated results
Refutation based of facts of science
The short version of the SuperMemo Critic's thesis is: SuperMemo is useless. By using external references and posing the right questions we can be successful at problem solving using the traditional methods (i.e. without spaced repetition in learning)
All external sources of knowledge so readily available to the author of the above thesis in the era of electronic communication, have not helped him accurately answer the question: Is SuperMemo useful?
Had the author of the thesis kept five relatively simple facts of science in his memory, he would not have arrived to his wrong conclusions. Of these five facts, three belong to well-established body of science and two to the less-well-known body of knowledge related to repetition spacing. Any one of these should suffice to refute the thesis:
Here is how the above facts influence our reasoning in reference to SuperMemo:
In 1979, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston introduced the first killer app: VisiCalc. The precursor of Lotus's 1-2-3, Borland's Quattro Pro and the current leader: Microsoft's Excel. The program gained a relatively high recognition at its time due to the innovative and easy-to-grasp concept popularly called a spreadsheet. Now VisiCalc is all but forgotten; however, it has for long remained a beacon of hope for would-be software developers looking for the next killer app.
When SuperMemo World was founded in 1991, it quickly attracted strong support from many who expected it to become the next great killer application. Although it has ultimately reached the magic figure of the estimated one million users worldwide, it is far from being a typical killer app. The reasons behind it are well illustrated in SuperMemo is useless e-mail. When Dan Brickling spoke about VisiCalc, he mentioned a factor of success that is missing in SuperMemo: instant gratification. In his words: Any product that pays for itself in two weeks is a surefire winner. This is not the case with SuperMemo. SuperMemo does not pay for itself even in a month.
When 21-year-old Mark Andreessen and his pal Eric Bina wrote their Mosaic and let it spread free over the Internet in 1993, they set a new standard for a highly useful, easy-to-use and a fast spreading software application. The example of Mosaic remains a reference point to software developers who would like to see their applications approach its record-breaking levels of popularity.
What sets Mosaic, VisiCalc, MS Word, and computer games apart from SuperMemo? We are all convinced that cultural barriers and educational tradition are the greatest inhibitors of SuperMemo's further expansion. Program's complexity also discourages many in the beginning. It is not the marketing outlays that make a difference here. Simple and well-designed applications quickly raise to million-user figures in the present Internet-based software culture with widespread freeware, shareware, GNU and open source paths to success. SuperMemo freeware has always been out there on the net, yet it never approached a fraction of popularity of such handy tools as WinZip or AceReader. For ages, we all have been taught at school: Don't just memorize it! Reason it out! This is why there is so much disdain for repetitive learning. Time and again, we see reviews of SuperMemo in the press or on the net that miss the critical point: spaced repetition! Time and again, we hear from users that they tried the program years ago and did not like it the first time. Why do I have to grade myself? Why does the program not ask me to spell the answer using the keyboard? Clearly, SuperMemo ain't Mosaic.
Yet, we take the obstacles in good part. The mission is: make the technology more popular. Make people understand it. This is why you can bet SuperMemo 2010 will offer qualities that we cannot even imagine today.
In the past we have seen major blows given to technology as a result of prejudice or ignorance. Florence issued an edict in 1299 forbidding bankers to use Arabic numerals. The city council of Danzig ordered the inventor of ribbon loom to be drowned in 1579. The print was threatened as well: book in the hands of masses can topple the king. Brisk mind did not prevent Napoleon to temporarily abolish the decision to adopt the metric system in France (ironically, the US has ratified the Metric Convention as early as in 1875). Did we not hear in the past that cars promote immorality, or radio will ruin the family life by eliminating conversation? Or that the web will bring a global infobabble?
It took a century to make a full use of the steam engine. It took years to make a good use of a telephone. Things went faster with electrification and automobiles. Radio and TV were widespread within a generation. Education is the key to such accommodations. Hence the positive feedback: we need more education, demand for education is conducive to SuperMemo, SuperMemo helps education, the more we know the more we know we do not know, and the self-propagating circle of demand closes.
There is little acceptance today for the genetically modified food, which is likely to revolutionize food science. Some people question the benefits of vaccination, which was the main contributor to the dramatically increased life expectancy in the 20th century. Some even are wary of the Internet seen as a source of pornography and hatemongering.
E-mail with the subject: SuperMemo is useless is for us a good occasion to ponder over the future of spaced repetition in learning. A small step towards the universal acceptance of the technology.
We have sent a few dozen e-mails to the most active and vocal supporters of SuperMemo. This is why the comments below are in unanimous disagreement with SuperMemo Critic. Yet we realize the sample is not representative and will post other interesting comments as soon as we receive them
We have shortened some texts, softened the language, removed personal data and placed our short comments in square brackets
User, student of law
The difference between Person A and B is simple. Person A has knowledge. Person B does not have it. Person A as a researcher or physician will know all the basics (or more, depending on the patience in memorizing items). Person B, as soon as his job gets complicated, will spend all his time searching books
One should also remember that time is a friend of a user of SuperMemo! The more you use the program, the less time you need for repetitions of the same material
The argument about 95% is ridiculous. What can I say? A propos, if I am not mistaken, I read that Piotr Wozniak claims that retention of 100% would be unbearable [this rather refers to the words of Russian psychologist Luria who described a famous case study of a patient who could not forget and lived a confused life]
Perfect memory of 50,000 answers in SuperMemo will let you ask 10,000 new questions. The greater the clearing the greater the perimeter (nota bene, this item I know from Advanced English). Why ask questions if we cannot answer? If you do not need better knowledge for the good of science or to get rich or for self-satisfaction, drop the program and do not waste other people's time
It is true that people were successful before SuperMemo. But they can be yet more successful with SuperMemo! I have the following plan: when I graduate, I will look for a well-paid job for a lawyer in consulting companies (they pay big money!). My GPA is rather average but I am ready to take on any candidate for good morning! They are looking for someone who is good now, not in the future. Most students does not have a clue of what they crammed 1-2 years ago! In my junior year, I have 10,000 items in law, and I can beat anyone. Who do you think the employers would prefer? The one with good GPA or the one who can sing law?
If you cram knowledge with SuperMemo during university studies, you can later get back your time. You can even spend it for fun and pleasures. Knowledge is your security
Distributor of SuperMemo
Why waste time with this? There are many reasons that this is nonsense ... as long as you do not learn the wrong stuff. But for learning vocabulary, basic facts you need for your exams or your job, they can be learnt very well with SuperMemo. And if you do not have the basic command of the area in question (language, scientific area, etc) then you will not be able to look the missing detail up, because there will be no missing detail. There will be no basis for asking the question.....
I think you better forget this silly letter and carry on with more serious stuff
User, student of law
I think, true value of SuperMemo is hard work - per aspera ad astra. Sometimes we don't have enough time to look up those facts in 30 seconds. We have only 5 seconds to make a right choice. I once wondered: "Does SuperMemo increase the capacity of human brain?" I think it does.
If we are doing something and we have 95 true answers - I don't need more. I want to have such effects. If you can't ask the right questions it is better to know right answers than knowing nothing.
Of course, I agree with the last sentence. "SuperMemo may be good for memorizing a bunch of useless trivia to show off in front of other people". It may be - but it needn't be
User, student of economics
I think some knowledge gained with SuperMemo is necessary to make the search for information possible. Without this knowledge, all information about the present world would be some incomprehensible code. We need some basis for judgment!
For me, keeping knowledge in my head is a source of satisfaction. I just do not want to waste time on searches. I like to have it "handy". Neither Person A nor B are ideal. I would like to be Person C who keeps all necessary and solid basics in memory and is also able to efficiently search for necessary information from outside. Life is not black and white and those two persons are not taken from reality
And please show me a program that is more effective than SuperMemo! 95% is not a failure but a success. 19 questions remembered in 20 is a good result to me
The problem of knowing answers or asking the right questions is strange. We need both the ability to ask questions and to produce accurate answers. This point compares chalk to cheese
I will also not comment on "successful lives without SuperMemo". It would be a scholastic discussion of a blind with a deaf about sound and pictures in movies. The reasoning error should be obvious to every reasonable person
This all reminds me a statement What for to learn anything at the time when it all gets outdated before we start our job? For many, the best method of studying is: cram for the exam, pass the exam and forget. The point on posing right questions is interesting. However, SuperMemo should help ask the right question, shouldn't it?
Some kind of knowledge may be so chaotic, and change so much that the only way to manage it would be using a forgetting index of 50% (what would be the same thing as not using SuperMemo). [actually, reducing the forgetting index for hard material may make thinks worse by destroying the semantic fabric of the learned material -- one of advantages of SuperMemo is to help you retain a coherent picture of the entire material in your memory!] However, whenever things get so hard, you can focus on a single part of the knowledge and use a divide and conquer approach. This is how science develops nowadays. Nobody can try to master Physics, Art, Astronomy, Chemistry, Math, etc. like Leonardo da Vinci
The matter of knowledge access is: who said it would be 30 seconds? If you have forgotten that trigonometric calculus formula, would it really take 30 seconds to retrieve it? If you forget that special computer language statement (that you have found only in one magazine...) would you really retrieve that in 30 seconds? Also, with a very big sum of 30 seconds operations you can really lose hours of productivity. There is a Delphi case of study at supermemo.com that shows that
About knowing all the answers: If you know really nothing about Quantum Physics, what is your chance of coming up with a really useful idea in this area?
I believe SuperMemo is the most powerful non-invasive tool for developing declarative memory (invasive tools are not yet there either). The very use of it shows us some facts that shock us, like how unreliable our memory is, or how much work is necessary to maintain knowledge, specially nowadays, that we have computers with much better memory abilities widely available for comparison. But it is not really a problem of SuperMemo but from our nature itself, and SuperMemo is yet the best tool for overcoming this problem. What SuperMemo doesn't do is to prepare collection for us, select the knowledge, choose what is important... It is all up to us. The task of preparing a collection, of judging what is important and what is not is also enormous... Perhaps we may even feel that it is not worth... (I remember how many times I terribly wanted to have one collection with the matter I wanted but it was not available). I believe this feeling about a new technology is very natural. For instance, we humans always wanted to fly like birds. Now, we can take one airplane and "fly", much faster and longer than any bird. However, we still get the feeling about wanting to "fly like a bird", with grace, security and individually
I find this type of article motivational for keeping on with my methods. […] I attribute much of my success to SuperMemo. The amount charged for the program is laughable given the benefit's I've gained. It's lucky for me that you don't charge a percentage of my pay increases! See: How I got a job at #1 software company?
User, student of computer science
Information could be accessed in 30 sec, but it could not be found in 30 sec. For some information, I have been surfing for 1-2 days (maybe even weeks).
About 95% retention: It reminds me how a pessimist and an optimist look at a half-empty glass of water
SuperMemo helps in "keeping facts remembered". Program that helps in deciding what is useful and what is not useful, does not exists, and I think it will not be found
P.S. This letter looks to me like joke
User contributionsAGAINST SUPERMEMO
5 years later
SuperMemo Critic had these comments to this article:
Negating something is a fundamental way of verifying it. These four arguments are about the best I can do for now in the way of negating SuperMemo. If you can pulverize them, your program will have withstood the challenge. If somebody then uses these arguments, you will be prepared to fend them off. Your article can forestall the enemy's move in that direction.
By 2005, SuperMemo Critic has amazingly become closely involved in promoting SuperMemo on the Internet. He also uses SuperMemo for learning foreign language vocabulary